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group of people and dog sitting on a blanket in a wooded area eating and drinking
by Jackie Menjivar, Manager of MHA Peer and Youth Advocacy

Danté Golden, Senior Director of Policy at the San Diego Housing Federation and a graduate of MHA’s 2020-2021 Young Mental Health Leader’s Council contributed guidance for this article.

It’s estimated that 60% of your health is determined by your ZIP code alone. That means some of the biggest factors influencing your personal well-being are just outside your door.

So what makes a neighborhood or town a mentally healthy place to live? Here are four things that can make a difference.

1. More green space and less gray space

Children living in neighborhoods with more green space have a reduced risk of developing depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. Spending time in nature is good for your mental health, positively influencing your mood, focus, stress levels, and emotional regulation.

On the other hand, gray spaces – the artificial and often concrete infrastructure synonymous with most cities – can have the opposite effect. For example, highway systems, which produce noise, light, and air pollution, can negatively impact the physical and mental health of the people living near them.

2. Protection from gentrification and displacement

“I think the qualities of a good neighborhood are ones that allow you to grow within that community and not be forced out.” - Danté Golden

Gentrification happens when wealthier residents and businesses move into an area, increasing the cost of living and changing the character of a community.

According to Danté Golden, senior director of policy at the San Diego Housing Federation and a graduate of MHA’s 2020-2021 Young Mental Health Leader’s Council, income hasn’t kept up with rising rents in California – an issue that’s all too common nationwide. Native-born residents are being forced out of their neighborhoods, and the remaining ones face mounting housing pressure.

We know that housing instability can take a toll on your mental health. A 2020 study found that adults living in gentrified neighborhoods were at increased risk for serious psychological distress, with renters, low-income residents, and long-term residents being impacted the most.

To stop this kind of displacement, Golden thinks policymakers should be guided by the “three P’s” principle:

  • Preserve existing affordable housing
  • Produce more affordable housing
  • Protect renters and vulnerable communities

3. Safe and walkable neighborhoods

Golden points out walkability as one of the features that make so many European cities appealing to U.S. tourists. These communities were built around people, not cars, so you get thriving, high-density city centers that are both walkable and bikeable.

When your community is walkable, it can boost your mental health in a few different ways:

  • You spend more time outside, which means you get to experience the positive impact of the outdoors.
  • It’s easier to get to school, work, medical care, and grocery stores. These basic needs are the foundation for your mental health.
  • You have more opportunities for physical activity and all the mental health benefits that go along with it.

Infrastructure like street lighting, wide sidewalks, dedicated bike lanes, pedestrian-only streets, and clearly marked crosswalks can make your community more pedestrian-friendly, and, consequently, mental health-friendly.

4. Social connection and support

“Being a good neighbor means allowing the opportunities and benefits that you have to be shared within the community.” - Danté Golden

In low-income and under-resourced areas, the bond of a community often predicts the mental health of residents. Strong social ties within neighborhoods protect well-being by fostering a sense of teamwork and community care.

That’s why it’s so important to show up for your neighbors in big and small ways. Offer services to folks who need them – like shoveling snow for an older neighbor or babysitting for local parents.

Golden recalls his baseball coach that he had growing up, a neighbor who would buy equipment for the team and host practice on his own property. For Golden, this is what community care looks like.

What can you do to improve your community’s mental health?

  • Attend city council meetings. Make your voice heard in community planning and development. Give feedback on proposed ordinances, bring up issues facing the community, and advocate for increased services that support mental health.
  • Support local businesses. Shop local, leave a positive review, support them on social media, and tell your friends. Not only are you helping to protect local businesses from gentrification – you’re also fostering connections and community care.
  • Talk to your neighbors. Share resources, join a local group, and plan or promote community events. Even introducing yourself and learning your neighbors’ names can build a sense of belonging.

The bottom line: When we invest in our communities, we’re building a foundation for positive mental health – and by uplifting the place, you’re uplifting the people who live there, too.

This Mental Health Month, Mental Health America invites you to Look Around, Look Within to learn about how your surroundings can impact mental health. Learn more in our 2023 Mental Health Month toolkit.

Connect with Danté Golden.

Learn more about Mental Health Month